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Hiking to Chato Volcano's Crater Lake

Destination: Arenal

My luck had held out with the volcano, and the day dawned blue with a hint of cloud pinned to the summit of Arenal.  The previous day of fishing on the lake by kayak had proved successful, with self-portraits of me holding guapote, tilapia and mojarra already sent out to my boyfriend as proof that these were more than fisherman’s tall tales.  I was ready for a physical challenge, and the little brother of Arenal, Cerro Chato, promised to provide.

Cerro Chato is an extinct volcanic peak that hides in the shadow, both literally and figuratively, of its more famous partner, Arenal.  While the glowing lava, rumbling boulders and plumes of smoke of Arenal remain the main attractions in La Fortuna, those willing to hike the trail to the crater lake on Cerro Chato are rewarded with a different type of spectacle filled with conversing frogs and peace: a lagoon changing from aquamarine to lime green with the shifting clouds. 

My day to reach this sight began with a taxi ride to the entrance, located next to (but separate from) the gate to La Fortuna waterfall.  In the building marked “Cerro Chato” I paid my entrance fee of ten dollars and discussed with the attendant the theories on how fish had made it into the lagoon (his favorite being that they were dropped by birds).  While it is possible to hire a guide at this station, and those wishing to have the knowledge of flora and fauna hiking the trail with them might consider this, the path is well-marked for the solo hiker like me.

The start of the hike took me through pastures spotted with wildflowers and the buzz of cicadas, and after a mile or so, plunged me into cloud forest with tree ferns and twisted roots making natural steps along the path.  Those steps quickly turned to hand and foot holds and the trail became much steeper and more strenuous.  The hike is not a long one, four miles to the top at most, but the grade which challenged even the trees to hold on, made me grateful for the hiking poles strapped to my wrists.

Nearing the top, the trail is marked every few hundred feet with the distance, and I counted steps between the markers to keep going.  My attention was on my next few steps, so it was a shift in the breeze that told me I had reached the rim of the crater.  Through the trees I could see the lagoon, much larger than I had imagined, bright green with the shadows of clouds scuttling across the surface.  And the surface was 600 feet below me.

A mad scramble gripping roots and tree trunks, scooting on my backside like a child, brought me to the shore.  A small pebbled beach with a fallen tree trunk allowed me to rest from the hike and take in the view of one of the most magical places I had ever seen.  The chirp of the frogs dotted the silence, I was perfectly alone, and the entire crater was mine.  In preparation for this moment, I had worn my bathing suit beneath my hiking shorts and took advantage of the solitude by wading into the cold lagoon and floating on my back with the tree-lined crater rim forming a circle of green which enclosed the sky above me.

For a half an hour I swam, picked up pebbles and plunked them into the water, answered the frogs and marveled at the small fish darting among the logs.  Then, voices pulled me out of my reverie as a small group of college students scrambled down the trail to discover the lake for themselves.  It was my cue to pack up my things and begin the hike (this time blessedly downhill) back to the entrance, back into the shadow of Arenal.

Hiking to Chato Volcano's Crater Lake in Pictures